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Lying About Smokeless Tobacco, by Jay Ambrose

Lying About Smokeless Tobacco, By Jay Ambrose

October 2, 2003, Scripps Howard News Service

Andy Rooney, everyone's favorite curmudgeon, was speaking recently to a gathering of editorial writers in Providence, R.I., and my mind wandered back to the late 1960s when I had interviewed him. He had said something then that I consider relevant today regarding the federal government's lies about smokeless tobacco.

I was at that time a reporter at a newspaper in Albany, N.Y., and had never heard of Rooney. But I had been given the assignment of writing up every high school graduation in the area and calling speakers to learn in advance what they would say. Rooney was one of the speakers.

Rooney was very nice to me, as you might guess. Don't we all see something likeable beneath the grumpy exterior in his "60 Minutes" spots? He said his message would be that young people are generally smart enough to see through falsehood, and that when adults try to ward off bad behavior, they ought to do it by means of truth-telling.

He had an example. To keep youngsters from smoking, parents once would say the habit stunted growth. Youngsters figured that to be so much hokum and smoked anyway, when the truth as best it was known at the time might have deterred them.

It is a bit amazing to me, I confess, that Rooney's words have stuck with me so long when so much else hasn't. Maybe it was because he was making sense, which is more than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has done in a refusal to share cold, hard data about the comparative risks of smoking cigarettes and using smokeless tobacco.

Instead, the agency hints that the two are equally risky, and once said so flatly on Web sites. The facts are not just a little different from that assertion. They are many times different.

Research shows that smoking, which kills 440,000 Americans a year, is probably 98 percent more dangerous than using smokeless tobacco, as I have reported before. Smokeless, which mainly refers to the tobacco in little bags that you stick in your mouth, is scarcely harmless. It is addictive and can cause cancer in the mouth that sucks on the bags. It can kill. But smoking is two times more likely to cause mouth cancer, and also causes lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease. Smokeless doesn't.

When writing an earlier piece, I talked to an official at the CDC, and he did not deny that the data make smokeless look less harmful. He contended that further research could change the data (always a possibility with almost any data on anything, of course) and worried that officially releasing the information could cause some teens to think smokeless was OK and might put them on the road to using cigarettes someday. There are other arguments more likely to sway teens than this latest version of shrinking their growth, it seems to me. Smokeless is in fact a messy danger. It can cause a jaw to disappear.

The bigger issue in my mind is all the lives that might be saved if people who are trying to quit smoking and cannot were to turn to smokeless. The government's disinformation is surely among the reasons some don't. Yes, quitting would be better, but what about those who are like Mark Twain, who said quitting was so easy that he had done it many times?

Government officials ought to read the Sissela Bok book, "Lying," including the passage in which she says lying can lead people to act in ways that serve them poorly. When intentionally misinformed, people "are unable to make choices for themselves according to the most adequate information available," she wrote.

The matter is especially pertinent at the moment because members of Congress are drafting legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory power over tobacco, and there is some question about the sort of information the FDA might be allowed to share publicly. The FDA should be bound by truth, and only truth.

The issue is a personal one to me. I may have started smoking partly because of my father's example. I quit cigarettes after I saw him die of lung cancer. There is a young man whose smoking today might have a lot to do with the example of my smoking. He has tried to quit altogether, and that's what I wish for him, but if he cannot, I would rather he used smokeless instead of smoking. The government should provide him with the most adequate information available.

(Contact Jay Ambrose at AmbroseJ@SHNS.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)